USFS leaders meet, public demands answers

A yearling walks with mares in a band of Heber Wild Horses on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

NAVAJO COUNTY — The public is demanding answers from Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) leaders, as even more wild horses were found dead early this week.

The Independent was provided an unofficial update in a brief phone call with the ASNF press team on Tuesday, Jan. 14. The agency was in the process of meeting with regional and possibly national levels of Forest Service administration that same afternoon concerning the horses. Forest Service sources provided additional details on Thursday morning in advance of a press release they planned to make public on Thursday or Friday.

Discoveries made by

hiker and horse advocate

Forest Service sources confirmed that a total of 15 horses have been found dead since Thursday, Jan. 9. Of the 15, evidence of gunshots were found in 12. Eight were found on Jan. 9, and seven were found on Jan. 12.

On Thursday, Jan. 9 a hiker came across one deceased horse and called the Arizona Game and Fish Department who immediately contacted the Forest Service, prompting the latest investigation.

That same day, Forest Service Law Enforcement officers and equine experts confirmed the discovery of eight dead horses, “with preliminary indications of deaths due to gunshot wounds.”

On Sunday, Jan. 12, a hiker found one dead horse which was first believed to be a domestic horse that was dumped. “Upon completion of the necropsies (Wednesday), the horse believed to have been a domestic horses was determined to have been part of a band,” said Forest Service sources.

On Sunday morning, five more horses were found by a horse advocate group member riding horseback who came across the carcasses. Forest Service Law Enforcement was notified and confirmation made. Then, on Sunday afternoon, a hiker found another, single, deceased horse which was confirmed by officials and added to the total.

Predators had damaged four of the 15 recent carcasses so they were “too predated to make a determination” about the cause of death. All 15 of the dead horses were found outside of the Heber Wild Horse Territory on the Black Mesa Ranger District and were several miles apart according to the Forest Service.

“That increases the wild horse deaths to 15 (8 from Thursday and 7 from Sunday) since January 2020,” according to the Forest Service.

If the count is accurate, it could mean over 30 federally protected Heber Wild Horses were found dead of possible gunshot wounds in the last 15 months. So far the investigation has not turned up any suspects or motive.

Necropsies and investigations

Officials with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests appeared to want to assure the public that they are doing all they can.

“Forest Service and law enforcement are actively collaborating across jurisdictions and using all tools available in this investigation,” assured Forest Service sources. “Last year we worked to develop advanced protocols which have resulted in better results and quicker turn-around times for getting staff on the scene.”

They also confirmed that necropsies were completed Tuesday, Jan. 14 for the seven horses discovered on Sunday. “The Region has access to several veterinarians that conduct necropsies in a systematic way in order to bring the best evidence to bear,” say Forest Service sources.

“We’ve deployed additional patrol officers into critical locations during times of increased activity. Our experts are asking the public not to attempt to search or assist on the ground, as disturbances will jeopardize the investigation,” they said.

“We’re evaluating all and any additional avenues to encourage more tips. While we appreciate community tips, we want to emphasize that while it’s not possible to call each tipster back, their information is helpful and we follow up on all leads,” say Forest Service sources.

Increasing pressure, increasing fear

Arizona District 1 Representative Tom O’Halleran hosted mobile office hours in Winslow and Springerville on Wednesday and was believed to be included on phone updates regarding the Heber Wild Horses although that has not yet been confirmed by his staff. O’Halleran has advocated for the White Mountain community regarding the horses. “... (M)any constituents feel their questions have gone unanswered by your agency,” he wrote to US Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen last February.

Outrage about the deaths was growing on social media as well, as some speculated that the shooter could pose a threat to the public. Advocates for the Heber Wild Horses and some members of the public are afraid that whomever is shooting the horses could threaten the safety of people out on the forest’s roads and trails, or the possibility that an interaction between the shooter and someone in the forest could provoke violence.

Some of the horse carcasses discovered last spring and summer were found less than one mile from populated areas and businesses.

“I don’t want to be a victim of a shooting,” says local resident John Frankie whose home is surrounded by national forest lands. “Some of the dead horses are 2,000 yards from my front door and they all look like head shots to me.”

If you have information

If the public encounters an injured or deceased horse, please contact the Black Mesa Ranger District at 928-535-7300 to report it immediately. In the event of an emergency, the public is always encouraged to call 911 and the appropriate agency will be dispatched.

Anyone with information can also contact We-Tip at 1-800-782-7462.

Reach the reporter at

lsingleton@wmicentral.com

Laura Singleton is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering Show Low city government, business and education.

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